Fergal Hingerty: Svaneti

Here, in his own words and images as guest writer and photographer, are the impressions of Svaneti from Fergal, who I introduced in my article for last week’s GT.

I flew into Tbilisi on a warm early morning in late September, not knowing what to expect, to see or experience when I would arrive in Mestia and the beautiful region of Svaneti. Then, after a day in Tbilisi arranging and preparing for the climbs ahead, I caught a minibus to Mestia the following day. My host and guide welcomed me into the family home, and, after being fed locally organically grown food over the following few days, I was ready for any climb or hike.

The very next day I started by hiking 17 km and ascending 1600 meters on a 9 hour traverse of the Guli pass, with outstanding views over the whole area. We started by climbing the mountain to the Cross ridge at 2450 meters above Mestia: a very steep and challenging start to all the walks. From the Cross it was a descent and than another climb up the Guli pass to the signpost there. Finally, that day I got close to Usbha: so beautiful, so commanding. Than a descent into the village in the next valley and an arranged lift for the 25 km back to Mestia. Ushba from any angle is easily the most beautiful mountain I’ve ever seen.

Another five days of hiking followed. The next day I walked from Zhabeshi to Adhishi, which included a walk through the construction site of the new ski slopes of Tetnuldi (which is 4974 meters high); classically, it is only just when you are practically on top of Adshisi do you see it, a big surprise as it stays hidden most of the walk. Adhisi is a village which has grown from two families to twelve with the recent tourism boom here, which is wonderful really, as this beautiful village would be completely abandoned otherwise. The avalanches in 1987 came close to this beautiful village being abandoned forever; thankfully that did not happen, and now the tourists should help it grow once again. After staying in a guesthouse there, the next day’s walk was from Adhishi to K’ala. First we had to cross the Adhischala river by horse as the frozen glacier-fed river is considered too hazardous to do barefoot, even if the river water was warm. This was followed by some wonderful views of yet another glacier, the Ashishi Glacier, and an ascent up to the pass at 2728 and a quick hop up to a nearby peak of 1825 meters. A stunning walk down to the valley followed with mist surrounded mountains and multi-colored autumn leaves glowing in the changeable weather. Then we were picked up at the bar/cafй/lounge/guesthouse/shop which was the only standing building in K’ala, for a drive along a precarious unpaved exposed mountain road to Ushguli.

The following day I went on a walk to the Shkhara glacier from the guesthouse (situated in the highest village in Europe with its end of the world feel). Then in the afternoon a 45 km drive over the same and more unpaved, exposed, single-lane landslide-damaged road/track to Mestia followed. The following day I went on another shortish walk to the Chaladi glacier from Mestia, encountering a baby wild bear on the way; naturally I did not hang around “to meet the parents”! Yet again there was more stunning scenery, but I did notice a few foolish tourists standing at the glacier as rocks tumbled down like the “penny falls” of the arcades I went to in my misspent youth... and then finally the big climb to the Koruldi ridge via the wonderful lakes from Mestia, a 1983 meter ascent from the bottom to 3328 meters and the most amazing views I have ever seen. The highlight of this was looking down on six glaciers from above.

Overall, the warmth, friendliness and wonderful food and scenery of the Svan people and the countryside are truly wonderful. However, on a negative note, there exist two issues which have to be tackled.

Firstly, the litter which appears along parts of the hiking routes used both by locals and some hikers, which could turn into a big problem unless dealt with soon. However, by far the biggest problem is the insane driving culture whereby white lines do not exist, and overtaking at high speed on bends, past lorries on narrow roads with mobile phone in one hand and car wheel in the other, is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes fueled with moonshine to boot... And that is without even mentioning the added problem of wandering livestock everywhere. But I do not want to end on too much of a negative note; if someone had told me I would climb a 3328 meter mountain four years ago, when I was recovering from a major nine-hour back operation which had a 20 % chance of putting me in a wheelchair (and a 100% chance of being in a wheelchair if I did not have it) I would not have believed them whatsoever. One thing is for sure: I will return to Svaneti again, with its wonderful people, scenery and food.

Tony Hanmer runs the “SvanetI Renaissance” Facebook group, now with over 1250 members, at

www.facebook.com/groups/SvanetiRenaissance/

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

www.facebook.com/hanmer.house.svaneti

Fergal Hingerty / Tony Hanmer

15 October 2015 22:01
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